Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Just end it, please!

After last night's hit, a dud. Worse than a dud, a bore. Can you imagine a performance slated for 75 minutes going over thirty minutes to 105?! I thought I was going to die, and not because it was Samuel Beckett's Endgame. (I had time, while watching it, to imagine all sorts of other actors I had seen recently - including fledgling actors at school - who I'm confident could have done it better.)

My friend H, an actress and director of the stage, helped me understand the problem: the two main actors, centrally John Turturro, are film actors, who have no sense of time, never get to do long scenes, and want the audience to savor their every word. They also don't know how to use or fill the space of a stage (though, to be fair, Beckett doesn't leave his actors much room to play). How do they end up in performances like this one, wasting the time of hundreds of theatergoers? They mention to some promoter that they'd be interested in doing some theater; the promoter finds a theater which thinks the film stars will sell tickets and a director who won't bruise the actors' egos; and it spirals downward from there. Very disappointing. Don't go - go see Druid's Walworth Farce instead.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Saw a brilliant new Irish play at St. Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO, Enda Walsh's "The Walworth Farce." Couldn't possibly do its intricate and ingrown plot justice - not to mention that I wouldn't want to spoil the story. But suffice it to say that the acting was remarkable, and the story hilarious and... devastating. It's about theater (of course) and Ireland (of course), but beyond the hilarity and the bleakness is a deep compassion for a perhaps mortally wounded humanity. I didn't plan it this way, but it fits nicely into a program of cultural events with my visiting friend H which took in Elia Kazan's "Streetcar named Desire" at MoMA yesterday and turns to Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" at BAM tomorrow.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Saw a terrific, fantastic, wonderful new musical this afternoon at the Belasco Theater near Times Square. (Yes, I liked it.) It's called "Passing Strange," and opened recently to rapturous reviews. The reviews seem to me only fair. It's a rock musical with great performances by the whole cast, beautiful songs and an incredibly witty and wise script. It tells the story of Stew (who also narrates it), who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and went to Europe to find himself - first in happy drugged- out Amsterdam and then in nihilist punk rocky Berlin. All along he's in quest of "the real," but also of a voice, an identity. "Passing strange" is a phrase from Shakespeare's Othello, the program tells us, meaning stranger than strange, but for an African-American it inevitably also suggests "passing" for something you're not, something Stew extends in interesting directions, slyly picking up other phrases like "passing phase" along the way. Very smart, very moving, with just the right amount of stuff on love for a musical and on art for, well, art. I'm going again. You go too.


The main thing which happened today is that - with the expert assistance of H - ground was broken on the garden: for two hours we chopped and raked and dug and soaked and even planted a little. As a reward for our labors, we watched "The Wiz" (1978), which had just arrived on Netflix, and which neither of us had seen before. What a trip! The disco aesthetics and dance - a youngish Michael Jackson was the scarecrow! - were wonderful, but the adaptation of the Wizard of Oz story was also very smart and even moving. (America's great, said H.) And then to have the good witch Glinda float from a starry firmament and, as she starts singing, turn out to be Lena Horne...! And get this: this Dorothy's Auntie Em lives on 433 Prospect Place - not two blocks from here!

Friday, April 25, 2008

On the shoulders of giants

My old friend H is visiting from Japan, so I had an excuse to do one of my favorite things in New York - go to the Met (museum) on a Friday night. The museum's open until 9, chamber music plays in the great hall, and the atmosphere is completely different than during the day. It helps that the galleries are empty, and you can, for instance, discover a Van Gogh you don't know looking across an empty gallery (which happened to H). The two big exhibitions on right now are Gustave Courbet (this
self-portrait as a "desperate man" dates from 1844-5) and Poussin Landscapes. I'd already been to the Poussin and Courbet's one of H's favorites, so we went first to the 19th century scandal-monger, who took the insult "realist" and ran all over with it. We were sort of... well... underwhelmed. While he's able up to a point to work in any genre he chooses, his figures don't really inhabit the spaces they're supposed to be in, hovering above them, sometimes as if standing on a painted canvas. But the bigger problem was that his work kept looking 20th century, indeed like specific 20th works - Cezanne, Picasso, Magritte, etc. And that, we concluded, was because all these artists had seen and studied the paintings we were just seeing. (It was like when I saw the Australian Impressionists exhibition at the NGV and saw through them 20th century paintings they had inspired.) I suppose this is one of the prices of success, but it left me confused - what becomes a virtue in the 20th century was, surely, a vice in the 19th century? Was he visionary or just unhinged, a painter who could do anything he wanted or someone whose weaknesses and blind spots turned out to be prophetic? (It could be both.) He was only "realist" when he chose to be, and behind every painting - or in front of it - is always Courbet himself making sure he's provoked us.
After a jaunt through ancient Babylon and a beer to chamber music and the gift shop, we made our way to Poussin, which was like seeing dear old friends. His world is entirely distinctive, but he's too modest (or ambitious) to insist on hitting us over the head with his own distinctiveness as an artist. H had seen a big Poussin exhibit a few years ago, but this somewhat unusual one - "Blind Orion searching for the rising sun" - was new to her because, well, it makes its home here, in the Met! Kind of changes the meaning of "on the shoulders of giants"...

Thursday, April 24, 2008


In case you haven't seen it: "New Yorkistan," one of the great recent New Yorker covers. I guess we're somewhere on the border of Khandibar and the land of the Flatbushtuns. (I used to live between the Artsifarsis and the Lesbikhs.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations'
The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.

The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


From the Grand Army Plaza subway station I pass through post days.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Um, urgent?

In Cultures of the Religious Right today, we discussed a 2003 manual for pastors by Dan Kimball called The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations. Kimball's church in Santa Cruz has reached out to young people curious about spirituality but indifferent to religion by using knowingly "retro" setups like acoustic instruments and an atmosphere more like a coffee shop than the TV show-like spectacles of megachurches like Rick Warren's Saddleback, let alone a traditional church.

Kimball claims that the generation of people in their teens and twenties now are different from any generation in the past, and that none of the forms of Christianity which worked for their predecessor generations will work for these. In particular, the strategies the likes of Warren used to reach "seekers" (people alienated by the churches they were forced to attend as children, but seeking a "purpose" for their lives) - deemphasizing religious symbols and rituals - don't work with this new generation, which thirsts for the real thing: crosses, candles, even (maybe) theology. Being "postmodern," however, they won't put up with dogmatic authority claims. The church must reach out to these people, or it's doomed to die.

Kimball's "emerging church" way to them is through "vintage Christianity," the re-presentation of traditional symbols but newly interpreted - and emphasizing the multiplicity of possible interpretations. It's like "vintage clothing," my student T insightfully pointed out, which might be used clothes or might be newly made but roughed up to look worn (indeed you'd kind of prefer it to be the latter, but not sure). Kimball provides pointers for generating spaces appealing to these "post-seeker" generations, and I decided to try to remake our classroom along those lines. I closed the shades, and put little candles all over. I moved the chairs out of rows and circles and made random-seeming clusters. I put on some Christian music. But the coup de grâce was on the screen where we project films and stuff from the internet. Kimball (p. 185) had contrasted

MODERN CHURCH (Seeker-Sensitive)
Stained glass taken out and replaced with video screens

EMERGING CHURCH (Post-Seeker-Sensitive)
Stained glass brought back in on video screens

so the washed-out image of one of the rose windows of Notre Dame in Paris (above), copied off the internet, grainy and clearly untrue to the colors of the original, shone a bluish light over the proceedings. It was pretty cool. But were lives changed? I don't think so. My students may be post-post-seeker, or rather, seeking a way to be over the whole post thing (which doesn't necessarily make the analyses of the emergent church less relevant). But there was a slightly different energy to the room...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Meanwhile in Religionland

I've neglected the religion beat these last few days, despite the fact that religion has been all over the news. Three quite different stories, each in its way fascinating, have been convulsing the media.

First (and least interesting), Barack Obama has been vilified for over a week for saying of small-town voters it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations. The media frenzy focused on the word "bitter," and the Clinton and McCain camps did their best to stoke the flames with allegations of elitism. Conservative pundits accused him of being wrong - it's not small-town but urban and suburban folks who vote on issues like "values" (including that strange American value, the right to wield deadly force). I don't know what all the fuss is about. The words may have been poorly chosen - these were off-the-cuff remarks in response to a question - but I'm inclined to agree with his broader point (one he made already in his highly praised speech on race in America) that economic marginalization or disenfranchisement are the root causes of many divisions in the country, and that if we care about our country we should do something about the economic causes. (I'm not saying I agree with his economic policies.)

Next, the Pope has just completed his pastoral visit to the USA. Especially here in New York, where he spent the last days, it's been all Benedict all the time. Exhausting! The media love him, and love describing how much everyone else loves him too. How could anyone have thought he was doctrinaire or disciplinarian when he's such a cute old man with such a funny smile and such a quaint accent? You'd think he was offering the same vapid pablum as the Dalai Lama about peace and human rights - what's not to like in that, indeed, to love? Isn't that how we like our religious leaders - old and a bit silly - and isn't it a relief that all those nasty stories about his time as Cardinal Ratzinger can now be forgotten? They don't notice that his words are double-edged. As we know, he means something different (I'm not saying wrong, but definitely different) by words like freedom and rights than you might think. When he speaks of reason to Catholic university presidents he's not talking about the Enlightenment's understanding of reason, but the reason he argued in Regensburg is incomplete without revelation. [At Yankee stadium he said that praying for the kingdom means "overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness." ] And they don't notice that his surprising (to them) efforts to acknowledge the priest sexual abuse scandal are just a reassertion of the open season on gay priests he announced a few years ago. I'm glad he's not ignoring the issue, the way the American bishops did, but his concern is, as it has always been, with the church rather than its victims.

Finally, there's the amazing case of the FLDS, the polygamous Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints community at El Dorado (pronounced doRAYdo) in Texas, all of whose children were taken into protective custody by the state in response to reports of forced marriages of girls to older men. At this moment, the largest gathering of lawyers in Texas history - nearly four hundred - is taking place. Stunning and disturbing also are the scenes of the mothers of these children, married several to each man (FLDS believe that a man must take three wives, like an Old Testament patriarch, to go to heaven), with similar old-fashioned dresses in bright colors, long hair in similar bouffes, and, when you hear them speak (rarely), similar childlike voices. Polygamy is illegal in Texas, as in the rest of the US, but polygamous communities are reluctantly tolerated by government officials who want to avoid another Waco. Taking children as young as 18 months away from their families is a drastic and traumatizing thing to do, but does one really want to see kids raised under such circumstances? Maybe the mothers sound like such simpletons because they grew up seeing their own mothers subordinated and infantilized in the same way. (The only good to come of this is that the people who enjoyed the television series "Big Love" get to eat their hats now. Real polygamy isn't sexy.)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The pear tree in the garden is blooming!

What to eat 2

Here's the real reason:

The Poor Eat Mud

In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically consumed only by the most destitute.

“It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt,” said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in recent months. “It makes your stomach quiet down.”

But the grumbling in Haiti these days is no longer confined to the stomach. It is now spray-painted on walls of the capital and shouted by demonstrators.

In recent days, Mr. Préval has patched together a response, using international aid money and price reductions by importers to cut the price of a sack of rice by about 15 percent. He has also trimmed the salaries of some top officials. But those are considered temporary measures.

Real solutions will take years. Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself. Outside investment is the key, although that requires stability, not the sort of widespread looting and violence that the Haitian food riots have fostered.

Meanwhile, most of the poorest of the poor suffer silently, too weak for activism or too busy raising the next generation of hungry. In the sprawling slum of Haiti’s Cité Soleil, Placide Simone, 29, offered one of her five offspring to a stranger. “Take one,” she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. “You pick. Just feed them.”

Raising meat for western carnivores and their emulators in the rest of the world (along with misguided ethanol programs) have created a run on staple grains throughout the world.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What to eat

I think it's about time I became a vegetarian. Although I sometimes think that later ages will look on our carniverousness with a horror like the one we feel on looking at slave societies, it's not because of animal rights. (I've avoided factory farmed meat for a while now.) No, it's because meat is ecologically unsustainable. The hunger spreading around the world as the prices of staples like rice and flour have risen dramatically is in part the consequence of more people becoming meat eaters. I've never eaten much meat, but from now on I'll make a point of avoiding it when I can.

Questions of what to eat aren't new - indeed it sometimes seems like food choices are the last way people in late modernity can interact with the world - ecologically, politically, culturally, etc. How very convenient that political correctness should also taste good! (Do I hear the execrable Michel Houellebecq sniggering here?) I already avoid processed foods (except Cheetos), but I'm not one of those who try to get everything organic. I've tried for a while (though inconsistently) to try to eat seasonal foods - harder to do in the winter, when the honest farmers' markets are bare! On top of that one is now supposed to be a locavore - eating locally grown food. Since it also tastes better, I'm happy to give that a try, though I'm doubtful (if hopeful) that Michael Pollan's right that it will also be cheaper, since rising petroleum prices make local products relatively cheaper than mass-produced ones shipped in from afar. (If I can get our garden going, I'll be a super locavore!)

Not sure how I feel about fish. Actually, I know exactly how I feel about fish - I love it, and the papers tell me there won't be much of it left in just a few decades. But is that a reason to eat a lot or a little?
The views of Mount Fuji in a rice paddy (one in a wave in a rice paddy)
are from Inakadate in Aomori, Japan, using different varieties of rice plant.
For a scene of the planting of these paddies - or is the harvest? - look here.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's tax day (ugh), about which enough said already. (Would I really rather be actually paying for Bush's unjust wars?)

Instead, here are some mystery pics for you (from the Times online): what's going on here?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Seeing art

One of the wonders of Boston is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and it was a special pleasure this time to be able to return to it with someone seeing it for the first time (my old friend J)! It's too much to take in in one visit or several, but that's part of its charm: instead of hiding away most of its treasures and showing you a few, carefully arrayed to help you encounter them one by one, the Gardner presents a saturated environment in which art lives, like a kind of botanical garden of art. Turns out, one realizes, that paintings are happier with wallpaper and furniture and objets than with other paintings on a blank wall. They're happier in natural light, even if that means you can't see much right now. And they really don't mind in the slightest if they have to share a space with objects from other eras or even cultures. Before the invention of the art gallery, no work of art or artist could have imagined or intended work for so antiseptic and single-minded a setting.

It helps, of course, that Isabella Stewart Gardner had a knack for juxtaposition. And that she and her buyers assembled a remarkable collection of art, like this 1543 portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger of a Lady Margaret Butts (not that this information was available next to the painting - and what does it really add?). What an incredible portrait, what life experience - what suffering, what patience - Holbein allows us to see in this woman's face, as she looks past us at - what? The gaze seems focused but it may not be something visible she's seeing... Strangely, or perhaps not strangely, that invisible thing feels more real in the Dutch room here, with dark wooden walls, a bumpy brick floor, a heavy carved ceiling, surfaces covered with pottery - and light flooding in through a big open window in the general vicinity of Lady Butt's gaze.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The sea, the sea

Had a sort of mystical experience on my way home from Boston today, as my thoughts about the wonderful if (because) disorienting privilege of stepping out of business as usual into thinking about the broader future started to coalesce into a sense of grateful and excited discovery. The story isn't over - if religious stuff happened once it's more arbitrary to suppose it will never happen again than to allow that it might, and might even now. We'll never know how little of the story we know, and yet, knowing this, opening ourselves to it, we are not churned under or pushed aside by the future (or simply forgotten). Sort of Spinozan, I guess.

It was overcast, and we were flying along the coast below a cloud layer which was varied from deep grey to beige, and palest orange on the horizon, all these colors reflected in the ocean below us, which ranged from greyish blues to green immediately below, with hints of mauve in some of the places where the thinner cloud was reflected. There were a few specks far out, boats, which looked like spots in the far distance of one of those Dutch landscapes which are 80% sky, with the difference that the cloud layer just above us made it 80% sea, albeit sea not opposed to sky. The wonder was the swells, two kinds of swells, perpendicular to each other. Fine parallel lines of wave moved up the coast, and across them like thick wool woven in a textile were larger swells moving toward the shore. I don't think I've ever seen this before, though I have spent many hours marveling at the textures and surfaces of lakes and oceans from plane windows.

After a while it seemed an image of patterns and teleologies beyond the linear push in our lives from cradle to grave, lives (individual or of a generation) inevitably finite, contingent and unrepresentative no matter how full or well lived. A different order of causality, a different assurance of meaning. Indeed the ordered movement of the waves felt like more than an image. It seemed like confirmation that, had we but eyes to see it (and this weekend I started to!), such is our existence too.

Business as usual

The future of the philosophy of religion is over, at least for this weekend. After we'd discussed each of the eight participants' papers, our organizer got us to agree to meet again in a year - but not to agree on what we would then do. I was disappointed at the modesty of people's suggestions (including the more than one person who hoped that next year's meeting, like this one, would require only a position paper and thus less preparation than a conference), and the general sense that this would not be a main concern of anyone there and shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of each of our existing research projects. In the background of both of these were concerns over tenure and promotion - an interesting demonstration of why future-minded work - at least work that is concerned for more than scholars' individual interests and futures - is so rare: it's not the future but the past which determines each of our professional futures!

I suppose there's some deep lesson in that, but it's still a bit disappointing. We'll shape the future but, will do it indirectly, since we'll be looking sideways and backwards but rarely forward. I'm thinking of Hegel's "owl of minerva [which] only spreads its wings at dusk," and of Benjamin's "angel of history":

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” [1920, left] shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Walter Benjamin, Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History)

As it happens, I alluded to both Hegel and Benjamin in my position paper (though not the messianic apocalypticism of Benjamin, which I think it self-important for people in our more banal era to appropriate), but neither my suggestions about the near future nor my larger question about whether the philosophy of religion is irremediably backward looking was taken up for long. I can't complain - that was the fate of all of our papers and their suggestions - but I'm still a bit sad about it because mine was the only paper which really tried to get us to think about the future and why we don't think about it well. At least in this iteration, our symposium showed how it is that younger scholars disgruntled with the time-worn "business as usual" of a field end up returning to and fertilizing that "business as usual" - albeit our "business."

I'm not commenting here on my fellow symposiasts, all of whom were engaging and thoughtful and open, but on what happened to us as a group.
I suppose I should be glad that the symposium organizer had not invited a bunch of the hotheads whose every intervention is to start the field anew, dismissing "the field" the way Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple! And yet, couldn't we have faced - might we not next year find a way to face - a future which we know will be very different from the recent past, a future which is already happening all around us? I refer here to two issues I mentioned, expecting everyone else to be thinking about them too (they're hardly new insights): the end of an age in which western thought is the privileged site for study, and the worldwide resurgence of religion, a resurgence none of the the central thinkers of western modernity expected or even thought possible. People outside the philosophy of religion are thinking about this - why don't we?

At dinner last night, my old friend J, a new friend T and I felt our way around what it would mean to be part of a specific a generation of scholars, a generation now or soon to be called to take on a leading role in academe. (This was a more rhetorical question for me than for T, who seemed to think the world of philosophy of religion very small, and our group among its clear leaders - I see a field that's vanishing and deserves to if it doesn't face the realities of present and foreseeable future.) Slowly but steadily the generation of our teachers is leaving the field - how strange to think of people our age being in charge one day, let alone soon! (Like the woozy-making thought of a president in his 40s - which seems troubling in a way it wasn't in, say, 1992, when people in their forties seemed like grownups!) Maybe the turn to "business as usual" happens as we find ourselves not on the margins of established practices but their caretakers?

The other symposiasts are all at well-established, indeed famous, universities, and are members of departments full of smart colleagues in religious studies. Part of me is terribly envious of that, but another part isn't quite so sure. The non-stop roller coaster which is my school doesn't allow me to imagine the status quo - any status quo - continuing substantially unchanged. I get freaked out by the rapid changes around us but at least I know they're happening. As to which of us will make better compost for the future, I can't say... they've written more books!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Philosophy of religion?

So here I am at Boston University at "The Future of the Philosophy of Religion: A Symposium of Younger Scholars." (We participants aren't sure whether to be confused or flattered at "younger"; I told the organizer he might be provoking a mass midlife crisis which might mark our generation for ever.) There are eight of us, averaging about age forty, and the conference organizer has slyly chosen four pairs of people who know each other from graduate school - two analytic philosophers of religion from Yale, two scholars of Indian Buddhism from Chicago, two people from the Boston area who work on German idealism, and two of us from Princeton's religion department. Each of us has comment on the paper of our erstwhile classmate - contextualizing the approach but also, as siblings do, carefully positioning yourself at some distance from your friend - in the years since we all finished our PhDs, we've each had ample opportunity to go our own way!

My friend J, who now teaches in the department of theology at Notre Dame, started her remarks by saying she felt both an impostor and a heretic being here - an impostor since she thinks of herself as a Christian ethicist rather than a philosopher of religion, and a heretic for thinking one should be both historicist and metaphysical. I won't tax your patience with the latter point, but with the former I could certainly resonate. I suppose I am a philosopher of religion by default, but I think of myself as in religious studies (which doesn't have an easy moniker: a student or scholar of religion is, I suppose, preferable to religious studiesist) rather than philosophy. My remarks (whose first few paragraphs you know) were entitled "The philosophy of religion is dead, long live the philosophy of religion!" My claim was that the field as it now stands is intellectually bankrupt: hopelessly old-fashioned and Eurocentric in its predominantly "theist" (not even Christian!) discussions, out of tune with developments and discoveries in religious studies, and fundamentally reactive and reactionary in its orientation - but that, if changed in almost every respect, it might turn out to be a very important project for the future. I hoped that my challenge would provoke people to say things would make me more hopeful, but didn't expect it.

Imagine my surprise, then, on finding myself, halfway through, entertaining fond thoughts about "philosophy of religion." It's not that I agree with everything being said, and the more we talk the clearer the challenges - what is religion? what is philosophy of religion? what's it good for? And yet: if it's people like those here, and conversations like those we're having, then I wouldn't mind being part of it! It turns out several others - not just J and I - arrived estranged from this field - and yet we accepted the invitation to come. Maybe our premature collective midlife crises will generate a new lease on life for the philosophy of religion!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jesus like you've never heard him

The best thing about teaching is that you learn so much from your students. Two of the students in Cultures of the Religious Right are doing research on Christian music, which exists in every genre you can imagine. Here's the metalcore band Norma Jean. (Not for the faint of heart!)
The words:
Staring at the world through the hole you put in my hand.
That was caused by a blade you gently inserted.
I did this for you, not for your religion, not for your patterns
I did this for you. I did this for a man like you.
Stop searching and find Me.
I am stabbed by grace and slinging blood.

A far cry from pastel portraits of Jesus with sheep and children!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tough love

The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, is coming to New York next week! To prepare myself for what may prove an important event, I went to an event at Columbia (planned by Crossroads) called "Only Something Infinite will Suffice: A Discussion on the Teachings of Pope Benedict XVI and their Relevance to American Culture." I don't think I've ever been in a room with as many people in habits, including, interestingly, a lot of novice nuns.

Most of the speakers were some combination of ancient, inaudible and vague. Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, told us Alexis de Tocqueville had concluded, in a brief chapter of Catholicism in
Democracy in America, that America would either end up without Christianity or as a Catholic country - not a section I can remember reading or ever seeing discussed (which doesn't mean it isn't in there!). You know which one he's hoping for!

But the last speaker, David Schindler, Dean of the John Paul II Institute and Editor-in-Chief of
Communio, made up for it, with a bluntly serious talk. In five unembellished sections he gave the kind of summary and analysis of Benedict's teachings which my friend B and I had gone hoping to hear. There was a lot there, but the main point was that Benedict isn't offering the kind of modern religion Americans believe in - based in belief rather than reason, a private add-on to secular institutions and practices. No, he's for transforming from within
our understanding of everything from reason to love to freedom to rights.

But it won't be easy: cultural transformation won't happen without suffering. Indeed, every Catholic should expect the crucifixion which Socrates predicted as the fate (and sign) of the truly just man:
mistaken for unjust, he "will have to be scourged, racked, fettered, blinded, and finally, after the most extreme suffering, he will be crucified" (Republic 316e) - another passage I didn't remember.

Fighting words, and especially resonant for me who had just led (or tried to lead) the students in my Religious Right class through 1 Corinthians 1, with its claim that preaching Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Benedict's saying more than that, but also that. His Kulturkampf is the real deal.

It's going to be an interesting visit!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


You've heard about 2012? You haven't? Well, ready or not the world as we know it is going to end - the Mayans predicted it ages ago, and so did many other ancient peoples. And Nostradamus, too. No coincidence: it's got to happen (December 21st to be precise). And then nothing will be the same. We'll leave our bodies behind and enter a collective psychic "noosphere." (I learned this from one of our students, who's writing his senior work on 2012 and the New Age. As ever, religious studies is on it!)
And if that doesn't happen? We learned from our provost today that even worse things may be in store: for 2012 is the year when the "bubble" of college-age baby boomer kids comes to an end. To hear him describe it, the world of higher education will change overnight - previously selective schools will be reduced to begging and bribing students to come.

I think I'll propose an interdisciplinary liberal arts degree in noospheric studies.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sprich auch du

At a job talk this afternoon I encountered this exquisite poem of Paul Celan's:

Sprich auch du,
sprich als letzter,
sag deinen Spruch.

Sprich --
Doch scheide das Nein nicht vom Ja.
Gib deinem Spruch auch den Sinn:
gib ihm den Schatten.

Gib ihm Schatten genug,
gib ihm so viel,
als du um dich verteilt weißt zwischen
Mittnacht und Mittag und Mittnacht.

Blicke umher:
sieh, wie's lebendig wird rings --
Beim Tode! Lebendig!
Wahr spricht, wer Schatten spricht.

Nun aber schrumpft der Ort, wo du stehst:
Wohin jetzt, Schattenenblößter, wohin?
Steige. Taste empor.
Dünner wirst du, unkenntlicher, feiner!
Feiner: ein Faden,
an dem er herabwill, der Stern:
um unten zu schwimmen, unten,
wo er sich schimmern sieht: in der Dünung
wandernder Worte.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


Stumbled this morning into a Hip Hop Mass (actually a Hip HopE Mass). It was at St. Mark-in-the-Bowery, an Episcopal church known as a place for artistic experimentation. A student a few years ago (in Religious Geography of New York) visited and told me they gathered in a circle, as indeed they do, and that it was very touchy-feely, which indeed it was - the exchange of the peace went on forever. But it's also one of the first places where a hip hop mass happened, and I happened on a happy reunion of the first hip hopers. I'd really like to say it worked. The music was terrific, and having hip hop dancers spinning in front of the altar was kind of exciting in a way.) But, while diverse, St. Mark's is still led by a white guy, however hip, whose well-meaning efforts to read hip hop versions of various prayers predictably fell flat. Peeps, homies, hood? God's got our back? We're representin'? I can imagine this would be exciting in a community where hip hop lives, but here it was forced, however heartfelt. (But once we got the hang of it, the congregation did do well with responding to amen with Word!)

Here's an example, the Hip Hope Mass version of Psalm 23:

The Lord is all that, I need for nothing.
He allows me to chill.
He keeps me from being heated
and allows me to breathe easy.
He guides my life so that
I can represent and give
shouts out in his Name.
And even though I walk through
the Hood of death,
I don't back down
for you have my back.
The fact that you have me covered
allows me to chill.
He provides me with back-up
in front of my player-haters
and I know that I am a baller
and life will be phat.
I fall back in the Lord's crib
for the rest of my life.

The reason I was at St. Mark's had nothing to do with this mass. I wanted to get rush tickets to a theater matinee at the Public Theater, and St. Mark's is nearby. Got the ticket (and another for my friend C), but Stephen Adly Guirgis' new play, "The Little Flower of East Orange," was a bit of a disappointment. Too many different things going on, not always strengthening each other. You might recall that a play by Guirgis was the culmination of C's and my Religion & Theater class last semester, a work pitch perfect, beautifully structured, rich and witty and profound... and one which worked a nearly miraculous reconciliation between the various members of our class. Maybe "Little Flower" will end up as satisfying a piece of theater, but I'm afraid it's got a long way to go before it gets there.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


Spent the day at Yale with three Lang students, to hear the latter half of a conference devoted to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, our efforts to wade through which I've described twice before. (In fact, we all got up before dawn to catch a train, so it was a very long day.) What did we conclude? Religious studies rocks! Some of the most interesting observations were made by José Casanova, a comparative historical sociologist of religion until recently a colleague at New School, and the best paper was by Courtney Bender, a religionist from Columbia (below the pic from her website). But it was also a little bittersweet, since many - including other people on Courtney's panel - couldn't even understand what she was saying, and so unwittingly confirmed her argument.

What was her argument? That Taylor's thesis that we live in a "a secular age" in which, even for religious believers, the nonexistence of God is thinkable, rests on a general disenchantment of western culture which is asserted rather than demonstrated. Yes, many elites started sounding secular in the 19th century, but Taylor pays no attention to how ideas circulate, and just assumed that the masses followed these ideas. In fact, even the elites didn't behave as he asserted: the 19th century in America was full of religious experimentation and novelty, some of it understanding itself as "spirituality" rather than "religion" but clearly not disenchanted. And yet, Courtney argued, if you just assume that the world had been disenchanted by then (by the scientific revolutions and the Enlightenment), you can't take these developments seriously, and will see them as subjective, individual and vestigial - no longer part of the culture, no longer a living faith. And yet, they deserve to be studied as religion. Further, the more we learn about lived religion before disenchantment is alleged to have happened, the more we see that religion in the supposedly secularizing and disenchanted ages is as much continuous with it as a break from it.

Others at the conference confirmed the validity of her argument by refusing to take it seriously. One guy asked if spiritualism really should count as "enchanted," since it involved ghosts, surely a sign of disenchantment. Taylor himself insisted that, as "reenchantment," it is "compensation for the loss of enchantment by other means." But if disenchantment didn't happen in the requisite way, no reenchantment is necessary! And experiencing the dead as not dead doesn't sound like disenchantment to me.

It may sound like a merely verbal disagreement, but it really gets at the heart of the matter - and maps on to a frustration us religious studies folks experience routinely in "the academy," where people who've never really thought seriously about religion and are somehow unaware of the continuing vitality of religion all around them, blithely assume that if religion's not dead already, it must surely be dying soon! Religious formations are certainly changed by modern developments, but reports of the death of religion are definitely premature. Where Courtney described a research project for tracing and testing these changes, the philosophers, political scientists and literature people at the conference proved so enamored of the idea of living in a secular age that they weren't able to see why further research was necessary.

This could be merely irritating - the clash of déformations professionelles which happens all over academe. But to me it's more. It's not just contemporary religious phenomena that are dismissed as vestigial. The people who live these religious and spiritual practices are dismissed, too, and dismissed without even an attempt to understand them.

José put his finger on part of the problem in a gentle critique of Taylor's book (which he otherwise praised extravagantly): the dominant "stadial" view of history (an ugly term Taylor uses for views that see history as moving irrevocably through stages). The "stadial" assumptions of secularized folks in Europe and elites in America who dismiss religion in the west as vestigial will soon have to cope with what happens as modernization occurs, and occurs differently, in non-Western cultures. (In Japan, for instance, modernization has not brought a decline in religious belief and practice.) Their secular ages won't be like the European post-Christian one, and the idea that there is a single narrative will fall apart.

Some in academe have got the point already, from considering religion in the United States. Don't ask me if I think the rest will get the point, even when the rest of the world modernizes in multiple not necessarily secularizing ways. I'm afraid their certainty, and their dogmatic willingness to dismiss masses of people as deluded, looks to me like the kinds of religious behavior we all wish would be secularized away! Why does it matter to them so much?

(I'm not claiming it doesn't matter to me, indeed I'm struggling with facing my internalized secularization theorist, as I've reported a few times already. Struggling, but it feels good. It feels like seeing more, seeing the humanity of more people, which is surely always a good thing. But don't ask me what it says about religious realities... !)

Friday, April 04, 2008

Religion, religion everywhere

There's a lovely exhibit of photographs on at the moment in the foyer of the Brooklyn Public Library. It's called Diversity of Devotion, a collaborative project by many photographers, started after 9/11 by Jenny Jozwiak. Several of the pictures are on their website; here are some of them. (Not on the website are some of my favorites; I'll see if I can find images somewhere.)

Nura Qureshi: Mama Donna, Brooklyn (right)
Kim Badawi: Marwan Kamal: Lead Singer of Al Thawra (Revolution), a Taqwcore (Muslim punk) group, Brooklyn
Scott Lewis: Falun Gong, Brooklyn
Stephanie Keith: Possession by the spirit Gede, Brooklyn
Chris Vilardi: Glow, QueensJuAnne Ng: Forgive the Sins of My Ancestors, Queens
Melanie Einzig: Boys Praying, New Baptist Church, Brooklyn

Thursday, April 03, 2008

500th post: wow! If only I knew how to write books! (Or maybe: thank goodness I don't know how to write books!)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Future shocker

I'm participating in a symposium in Boston in two weeks called The Future of the Philosophy of Religion: A Symposium of Younger Scholars. While one might just take the title to be a description of the eight of us bright young(ish) things presenting - lookit us, we're the fyooture! - I've decided to take the title literally and think about more distant futures. How often does one get a chance to play the futurologist? It's structured like a European symposium - each participant submits a paper in advance, which all others read, and the actual symposium involves extensive discussion of the papers. Should be fun.

But what is there to say about the philosophy of religion? I'm really a religious studiesist, not a philosopher of religion. Part of me thinks the field is hidebound and hopeless. But perhaps this is the setting for a jeremiad and a call for renewal, and I should play the gadfly! That, in any case, is the strategy of my position paper, where I shoot the moon imagining futures our philosophy of religion is incompetent to address, then try to find a way back to philosophy of religion. Here's how it opens:

The question of the future of the philosophy of religion is really a faith question. Not just about our faith in philosophy, but our faith in the future of religion itself. Is Maitreya coming soon? Before or after we become as God? Will the god-gene win out over secularization? I am excited about this symposium because the way I’ve learned to think about almost everything is shaped by the narratives and explanations, disappointments and compensations of secularization theory—and suddenly, all bets are off. The future of religion beckons, and I find myself unprepared for it.

Out of professional scruple I will dodge the faith question, but professional scruple also enjoins me to name it here at the outset. One thing I’ll be proposing for our discussion is that the philosophy of religion is a backwards-looking discipline (forward-looking present company obviously excepted!), and often reactionary in its implications. I know about the owl of Minerva, but many an evening and a morning have passed since Hume, Kant, Hegel…! Our problems and problematics come from past religious formations, some of them long dead, and it is high time we acknowledged how small a part of the history of human religious articulations they scan.

But the challenges I’ll name apply to all of philosophy, and indeed to all of the humanities as practiced in western universities. Philosophy of religion may have no future, but in the future everyone will be doing philosophy of religion. In the following, I gather reflections around 12 theses concerning ways in which we might rise to the challenge. The philosophy of religion is dead; long live the philosophy of religion!

Invoking a book by Freeman Dyson I read a few years ago, I go on discuss imponderable futures - thousands and tens of thousands of years from now - when all bets well and truly are off. The religious traditions we study are barely a few thousand years old. I'll send you the rest if you're interested (it's about 3600 words in all)... but let me show you the one longish passage I quote from Dyson; it's a stunner, quite sufficient seed all by itself for many a fascinating discussion:

On a time-scale of ten thousand years, the mismatch between our past and our future becomes even more acute. Ten thousand years ago we were still a single species, not noticeably different in physical and mental qualities from the people of today. We were living in hunter-gatherer societies, and learning slowly how to adapt to a warmer climate after the rapid ending of the last ice age. Our loyalties were fixed to family, tribe, and local culture. Ten thousand years in the future, who knows what we shall be? On the ten-thousand year time-scale, qualitative changes dominate quantitative changes. On that time-scale, our values and ideals are totally plastic. The battle ground of human evolution will move from biology to philosophy. Science may or may not still exist. Beings that we would recognize as human may or may not still exist. I hope that our human shape and our ancient human loyalties will be preserved in some fraction of our future territory. Even if our descendants in other regions have achieved immortality, as they well may, it would be wise to keep a population of mortal humans on Earth, so that some contact with the reality of death will not be lost. Imagined Worlds (Harvard UP, 1997), 160-61

Should be a good time, if my fellow symposiasts prove to have the right sense of humor and seriousness! We might actually have some breakthroughs!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Our dean-to-be, quoted in the school newspaper:

"We've always been known as a hippy-dippy school. ... We still want to be a hippy school. We just don't want to be a dippy school."

There's hope for us yet!